Bulloch County has established a new record for voting prior to the final Election Day. More than 39 percent of the county’s 34,865 active registered voters had voted early or returned paper absentee ballots by 5 p.m. Friday.
That was the close of in-person absentee voting. There will be none on Monday. Then all 16 traditional Bulloch County precincts will open for voting – by those who haven’t already done so – from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. Tuesday. Friday at 5 p.m. was also the deadline for absentee ballots to be mailed out, but they will still be counted if received by mail or returned by the voter in person before the close of voting Tuesday.
“I have a great staff and some good poll workers,” county Election Supervisor Pat Lanier Jones said in an email Friday evening. “They have done a great job with the Early Voting! These past few weeks have been busy.”
If as many Bulloch County residents vote Tuesday as have voted already, the total turnout will be the highest in more than 12 years. The Herald reported a 74.6 percent turnout in the November 2004 election that kept President George W. Bush in office against Democratic challenger John Kerry.
More than 13,000
This year, the County Annex was available for three weeks, the Honey Bowen Building for one week and the Russell Union on the Georgia Southern University campus for three days for early voting. The County Annex and Honey Bowen building were also open for one Saturday.
By Jones’ count, 12,777 Bulloch County residents appeared in-person to vote early on touch-screen machines. That by itself would be a 36.65 percent turnout, but 913 paper absentee ballots were returned though Friday, bringing the total to 13,690 participating voters and a 39.27 percent turnout with Election Day still to go.
The previous known highpoint of pre-election day voting was 12,049 early and absentee voters in the November 2012 presidential election. That was then 34.8 percent of the county’s active registered voters.
Invalid GS addresses
Not counted in this year’s total, yet, are 19 paper provisional ballots submitted during the three days of early voting at the Russell Union, Oct. 25-27. Those voters, apparently Georgia Southern students, presented with registration addresses of 1332 Southern Drive, which is the location of the university’s Admissions Office, and 97 Georgia Avenue, which is the Dining Commons, Jones said.
Poll workers did not allow these students to vote on the regular machines. They were instead allowed to vote provisionally, and provisional voting is done only on paper ballots, Jones said. A provisional ballot is withheld from the count on election night, but will be added to the final count if election officials determine that the voter was legally registered and eligible to vote in Bulloch County.
Bulloch County election officials became aware of a problem, with these same non-residential addresses being used by 170 newly registered voters earlier this fall, Jones explained Friday.
“We did catch it before voting started,” she said.
After staff members encountered 155 registrations with the Southern Drive address and 15 with the Georgia Avenue address, a Bulloch County Board of Elections and Registration meeting was called for Sept. 23. The board passed a resolution challenging the 170 voter registrations and scheduled a hearing for Oct. 12.
The board then tried to mail notices to the 170 potential voters. GS Dean of Students Patrice Buckner Jackson helped by sending an email blast to students, and the university’s mail center helped as much as possible to forward the mailed notices to the would-be voters, Jones said.
Only one person out of the 170 attended the hearing, but at last count, 47 of the challenged voters corrected their residence address in a timely manner, she said.
The board cancelled the rest of the challenged registrations, apparently 123 of them. The 19 provisional ballots are those of individuals with cancelled registrations who showed up to vote, Jones said.
Meanwhile, 2,284 voters cast regular ballots in the three days on the Georgia Southern campus.
No fraud suspected
“At this time, I do not believe that there was fraud on the part of the voter,” Jones said Friday. “In speaking with those who have used the 1332 Southern Drive address, the responses have pretty much been the same. The organization that was doing the registration drive was telling them to use the 1332 Southern Drive, which was an incorrect address.”
Asked which organization did this, she replied, “We’re not 100 percent sure. We think it was one of the ones that were going around Georgia registering people.”
Students who gave the 97 Georgia Avenue address and later talked to election officials actually lived at Centennial Place, a residence hall at 98 Georgia Avenue, she said.
The elections board in its Sept. 23 resolution also challenged two Chandler Road addresses, one of which turned out to be the office of an apartment management company and the other a mistake for an address on Lanier Road. No voters were registered into the database from either address, Jones said.
There may also be one provisional ballot from the Honey Bowen early voting location, Jones said. The challenged campus addresses will increase the number of provisional ballots in this election. In Bulloch County, these often number in the single digits. Some are issued for residents who have moved within the county but have not updated their addresses.
The elections staff will work to determine which provisional ballots will be counted after the election Tuesday and before the results are certified to Georgia’s secretary of state the following Monday, Jones said.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.